By Mark Osborn
On 26 May, a special conference of the Association of University Teachers voted by a four-to-one majority to overturn the “targeted” academic boycott of Israeli universities which the regular conference of the union had narrowly agreed on a snap vote, without debate, in April.
However, the stance taken by the conference of the other lecturers’ union NATFHE the following weekend suggests that the issue — and the need for a campaign on it — is not going to go away.
Following the original AUT vote to boycott the universities of Haifa and Bar-Ilan, but before this decision was overturned, three emergency motions were submitted to NATFHE conference from anti-Israel leftists. The issue was also raised at a fringe meeting at which eighty delegates and observers heard Hilary Rose debate union national executive member Mary Davis. Davis was heckled by pro-boycotters as she made the opposing case.
Two pro-boycott motions — from the North West and London region — were ruled out of order because of the AUT’s decision to overturn its boycott. Those two motions, clearly advocated that NATFHE follow the AUT in boycotting Israeli academia. However, a much vaguer motion from South East Region, moved by an SWP member, was passed. The motion reads:
- the AUT Council’s previous decision to boycott two Israeli universities and the resulting attacks on, and misleading and insulting claims about, the AUT;
- a number of NATFHE Branches’ and CoComs’ declarations expressing solidarity with AUT’s opposition to oppression in the Middle East, and affirming AUT’s right to act.
Conference affirms that:
- to criticise Israel [sic] policy or institutions is not anti-semitic;
- it is the duty of educationalists and their organisations, to speak out and act against oppression and discrimination;
- it supports the AUT's right to make this decision.
The NATFHE web site also notes: “Following this motion, general secretary Paul Mackney made a brief statement clarifying the meaning of ‘Israel policy’ in the motion as referring to Israeli government policy, drawing delegates’ attention to NATFHE’s existing policy on Israel/Palestine, and to speeches he had made based on that policy, and committing NATFHE to work with the AUT and the TUC to develop this based on a debate involving all of the union's membership.”
While not committing the union to a boycott, the motion was clearly a mealy-mouthed nod in that direction. Its adoption is a concession to the stupidity that passes for left-wing politics on the issue. For example, the statement: “to criticise Israel [sic] policy or institutions is not anti-semitic” seems to have been written by someone unaware of Islamist, right-wing or other anti-semitisms and was passed by a conference which is clearly badly educated on this issue.
NATFHE’s standing policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — agreed by the Executive after the AUT pro-boycott decision, and before its overturn, is as follows: “In the light of AUT Council decisions on Palestine and Israel, the NEC confirms its policy of working to support the building of civil society in Palestine, including cooperation with AUT where appropriate, to build positive relations with Palestinian and Israeli institutions and organisations which share our goals, and the consideration of sanctions where they are targeted and deliverable in respect of institutions which are creating obstacles to a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Palestine.”
That was another, muddled, fudged, messy motion from anti-Israel NATFHE leaders who are not bold enough to spell out the implications of their political instincts — presumably for fear of legal action.
NATFHE is clearly in need of an urgent discussion on the question. While some of those who are pro-boycott are simply motivated by the idea that “something must be done” for the Palestinians and have adopted the policy for lack of easy alternatives, a poisonous strand of smash-Israel “leftism” is also present.
NATFHE activists must take up Paul Mackney’s offer to take this debate out into the membership, where we will find a receptive membership and leave the pro-boycotters isolated.
AUT activists were able to overturn the boycott because they organised a pro-active, political campaign which neither ducked the important issue of making solidarity with the Palestinians nor tried to overturn the boycott on narrow procedural or legalistic grounds. The run-up to the AUT special Council saw union members mobilised in large numbers to discuss the political stance and direction of their union. We can do the same in NATFHE.
After the AUT’s decision to overturn its boycott, about 70 people attended a fringe meeting/ press conference at which the organisers of the union’s anti-boycott campaign spoke.
Dave Hirsh from Goldsmith’s College London stressed that things are as bad for the Palestinians as they have ever been, and that the pro-boycott “pretend left” hinders the building of an effective solidarity movement. John Strawson called for a solidarity campaign that ‘loves Palestine instead of hating Israel’. The need for such a campaign is both obvious and urgent.